THE Oklahoman has long supported government transparency, particularly regarding how taxpayer funds are spent. But taxpayers who expect government to protect their sensitive personal information are not unreasonable. A proposal to restrict release of farmers' and ranchers' information shows the tension between those two goals.
This year the Environmental Protection Agency released the names, phone numbers, addresses and other personal information of 80,000 people involved with feedlots and other agriculture businesses. The EPA provided that sensitive information to three environmental groups that filed Freedom of Information Act requests.
The disclosures affected people in 29 states, including some who reportedly owned no livestock at all. The U.S. has about 20,000 confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs). The extra 60,000 names included a wide range of rural citizens who were justifiably upset.
Individuals impacted by the release of that information — which the EPA later acknowledged shouldn't have occurred — had legitimate reason for concern. Some farmers have reportedly had property vandalized by members of environmental fringe groups. In a worst-case scenario, rural citizens must worry that the EPA's release of personal information will allow them to be targeted by the most extreme environmental groups, which have engaged in terrorist activity.
In response, U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Ark., has called for instituting a stronger prohibition on the government release of farmers' physical addresses and other personal identifying information. That proposed law has drawn opposition.
A coalition of 43 groups, including several journalism organizations, issued a letter opposing the change, declaring, “Members of the public have a right to know about agricultural and livestock operations that affect them, including where such operations are located. This information is especially critical for people who live near or share waterways with concentrated animal feeding operations.”